Wrong Direction Farm

Snow? No Problem.

One of the things I enjoy about cows is how they take everything as it comes.  Two or three feet of snow?  No problem.  Just give them hay, water, and some trees to block the wind while they are napping, and they are fine.

The picture above was taken few hours into Tuesday’s snow.  By the end of the day it was up past their bellies.  They made a few paths between their hay bales and their water, and with enough cattle moving back and forth between the two points they maintained an open lane so that even the yearlings had no difficulty moving across the field.

Reluctant Piglets

The piglets on the other hand needed a lot more persuading to sally forth from their snug hut and out into the snow.  Eventually, after listening to them stand in the doorway and whine at me, I relented and trampled a path for them, which they immediately followed out to their trough.  As a special snow day surprise, I filled their trough with milk.  (Normally they drink whey, but because many milk trucks were unable to move during the highway travel ban most of the dairy farms near me were dumping their milk.  I was able to pick up 1600 gallons of fresh milk from a farm just around the corner.  The pigs were quite pleased with the situation.)

Uncomfortable Neighbors

One of the cats discovered that the chicken nest boxes are actually pretty cozy places to nap.  The cat figured out how to avoid the electric perimeter fence by scaling a wood wall about ten feet high and dropping down into the chicken’s shelter.  The chickens are none too pleased to be sharing their space.

Power to the Pasture

With last week’s balmy un-February-like weather, I was watching the grass carefully.  Despite the warm air, ground temperatures remained cold and most of the pastures remained dormant.  But not uniformly dormant.

Note the contrast in the left and right side of the image.  The left is where the cattle ate a hay bale last March.  The right side is the normal grass in the field.  This field has been grazed three times; before that the field had been hayed for many years in a net-export environment that didn’t do much to return fertility to the field.  The contrast in the photo tells me a few things:

  1. The combination of cattle and bale grazing definitely adds fertility to a field.
  2. Last fall when the cattle came through this field, that spot was already more fertile (hence tastier grass), as evidenced by long residuals they left behind on the right versus the short cropping on the left.
  3. Increased fertility leads to a much earlier startup of photosynthesis as the green versus brown contrast shows.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, this is an encouraging indication that the farm soil biology is improving.  As the soil comes into better balance, the bacterial and mycorrhizal life are functioning at a higher level, expanding the operating window for our soils.  I’ve heard before that good grazing management can effectively extend the growing season by allowing plants to be more active more days of the year, but this is the first year I’ve seen such strong evidence for it in spots over the farm.

Do I hear the skeptical grumble that I’m just looking for evidence to support my presuppositions?  Alright, I’ll agree that I’m a non-objective observer.  Aren’t we all?

It’s Here: Soppressata

It has been a long time coming, but we are glad to feature a mild Soppressata salami among our list of products.  Each batch of salami takes a couple of months to make; during that time it is hard to wait patiently!

Interestingly, the Soppressata has the same list of ingredients as our Spanish Fuet, but the taste is very different.  Both salamis are lacto-fermented, but by playing with the fermenting and drying conditions, the whole character changes significantly.  Whereas the Fuet is hard and pungent, the Soppressata is soft and mild.

The folks at Espuña who have been making our salamis bring a European sensibility to their recipes, so this salami is a bit different from the American mass market Soppressatas I’ve tasted.  Rather than clobbering you over the head with spices, this one lets the pork take center stage.  (Note, if you like a salami with lots of spices, we hope to have a great pepperoni this summer, so stay tuned.  We just got to taste the first sample batch this weekend.)

Need to get your salami fix?  You can find it in our online store here.

antipasto

An antipasto salad I made for our first meal with the new Soppressata.

Bed of Worms

“Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge?”  Shakespeare, Sonnet 146

(The fun thing about cherry picking quotes from the literary luminaries is that one can usually find appropriate quotes, so long as context is ignored.  As quoted, these worm lines are germane; in context, they take the reader in quite other directions.)

In literature, sleeping with the worms is a mournful topic, but allow me to introduce a bed of worms story that is good news for us.  Last year I mentioned how our compost piles were colonized by red worms.  These worms are related to earthworms, but instead of being at home in the soil, they prefer to burrow through rotting plant matter (leaf litter and fallen tree bark are their natural habitats, although they are popular among vermicomposters for home composting bins).

I didn’t remove last winter’s bedding pack from the grower pigs’ hoophouse until August.  During the summer some worms colonized the bedding pack.  I hadn’t seen worms active in the bedding before that.  They have been living in our composting area a few hundred feet away for two or three years.  However worms migrate between compost piles (probably transported in egg form along with tiny bits of dirt on our shoes or on the tractor tires, although I prefer to envision a few hard-bitten, intrepid worms embarking on an expedition of the Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, or John Wesley Powell variety) this time they managed to hit the mother lode of compost.  The grower hoophouse usually starts with 30-40 yards of wood chips, then we add a half ton of hay or straw each week from November until May along with another 20 or more yards of chips.  That’s a lot of worm food.

Back to last summer…  When I saw all the worm activity in the bedding, I decided not to completely remove the old material before adding fresh wood chips.  I left a skim of old bedding behind and then piled wood chips on top.  I hoped that this would jump-start the composting of this year’s bedding pack in the spring, but I didn’t count on the worms staying active all winter and thoroughly infiltrating the entire pack.  Surprise!  They are everywhere.  It is enjoyable to watch the pigs digging for worms.  During the summer of course they are always rooting through the dirt for worms and grubs, but this year they have been enjoying a little special something extra in their diets year-round.

I have not found any evidence of red worms in the hoophouse used by the laying hens as their winter shelter, just fifty feet downhill.  Some of this may be due to the shallower bedding not providing enough frost-free material for the worms.  That hoophouse for some reason never had worms even though we piled lots of bedding for the sows in there last year.  My plan for next year is to inoculate it with worm eggs (i.e., starting with scoops of compost known to have worms) before I add bedding.  I’d be pleased to see that hoophouse supporting a prolific worm colony in winter, and the hens would undoubtedly be pleased with that outcome too.

Besides the obvious benefits from the the worms feeding the pigs and chickens, I suspect that we’ll end up with richer compost if worms can be incorporated from the beginning.  The more biological activity in the compost and the more the pigs or chickens aerate the bedding pack searching for them, the more likely it is that we’ll incorporate and bind nitrogen to carbon early in the composting process, minimizing the volatilization of ammonia and ultimately increasing the fertilizer value of the finished product.  Better livestock feed and better compost quality, all 100% animal powered without requiring any extra diesel fuel or purchased inputs.  Sounds like a winner to me.  So yes, Shakespeare, I’ll gladly let “worms, inheritors of this excess, eat up” as much as they please.

Changes 2017: Meat Chickens

Sorry, no pictures since we don’t raise meat chickens over the winter.  The first batch arrives in early April.

After years of lackluster broiler chicken experiences, we finally felt like things were clicking in 2016.  Chicken health was great, mortality was lower than we imagined possible, and feed conversion rates were vastly improved.  Last year we thought we were going out on a limb to raise 300 chickens instead of our usual 150, but we are currently sold out on all our cuts except drumsticks and nearly sold out on our whole broilers.  Clearly we need to go bigger this year.

AJ, our chicken czar, is about to turn 12 and is becoming stronger and more capable.  He gets paid a commission on every chicken that he raises, so when we discussed our 2017 plans I could see the cash register cha-chinging in his mind as we planned to target 600-700 chickens this summer.  But it isn’t just the pay that motivates him, he really has a knack for chickens so it is fun to see the confluence of interest and opportunity.  He reads every issue of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association newsletter and we get together afterwards for him to tell me what he’s learning.  I think this will be a great year for him.

Our new pasture chicken shelter can easily accommodate 350 birds, which is the number we’re targeting for our batches this year.  To accomplish that, we’ll need to build a bigger brooder.  Brooding chickens has always been a weak link, where we utilize whatever we can cobble together to keep the chicks warm and safe during the early days when they need extra protection.  For this season we will repurpose a chicken coop we outgrew and rebuild it into a brooder on wheels.  One appeal of the mobile brooder is that we can tow it out to the pasture and unload chickens directly from the brooder to the range shelter, skipping the intermediate steps of crating and uncrating.

The additional chickens are going to require a second bulk feeder and a bigger waterer in the shelter.  I’d also like to purchase a few hard-sided feed boxes so I can forklift a half ton of feed out to the shelter at a time rather than using our current method of toting the feed out in 55 gallon drums.

Overall I don’t expect any major alterations to our methods this year, the only changes will be a few upgrades to accommodate the growing flock size.

Apologies for running out of chicken so early this year.  We’ll do what we can to keep up with the demand, once spring rolls around and the chickens can get out on pasture.

Handmade

Winter makes its demands on the farm family as surely as the other seasons, yet it’s also an opportunity to regroup as a family, plan for the coming year, read aloud together around the wood stove in the evening, and work on projects we wouldn’t normally. Dave and AJ made a trebuchet a few days ago, Harry is cranking out drawings, the smell of fresh baked bread is wafting through the house (to be honest–mixed with the smell of a skunk at the moment), and Allie and I have our sewing machines out.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I’ve added three simple handmade lunch bags to our farm store. The fabric from Birch Fabric is organic. The bags stand 10″ tall by 12″ wide, so you can easily fit in a bottle of wine, a baguette, cheese, and some fuet as you head out for an afternoon with your favorite friend.

Because I so rarely take the opportunity to blog, and because in winter I get to steep in the work of authors that inspire me, I can’t resist leaving off with another poem by Wendell Berry:

 

February 2, 1968

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

Changes 2017: Pickup Points

We want to add several Staten Island and North Jersey neighborhood delivery points for our grassfed and pasture raised meat and eggs this year.  Do you have a recommendation?  Let us know on our simple pickup location suggestion form; this is a huge help to us!

The map below shows the general path we would like to follow for our monthly Saturday run, starting  in the morning near Edison, moving to Staten Island, then one to three delivery points between Bayonne and Fort Lee, then one point in central Bergen County somewhere between Paramus and Oradell (yes, this is a pretty big search area), and finishing up with a late afternoon stop between Saddle River and Mahwah on our way back home.

delivery-route

If you know of any places that would work for a group of people to meet us to pick up orders, again, please let us know.  Places that work well include church parking lots and gyms.  Business locations sometimes work, especially if the business is typically closed on Saturdays.  Private residences can work, provided that there is a driveway for us to park our van and that having ten to twenty people show up during a delivery doesn’t cause problems for neighbors.

Our next delivery run to NJ will be on Friday the 10th and I plan to stick around on Saturday to scout a few locations.  Let me know what you’ve got and I’ll swing by.  If your location isn’t along the path I’ve drawn, feel free to tell us about it anyway.  We’re always taking suggestions.

Changes 2017: Pigs

Here is the second installment in my series outlining the changes planned for Wrong Direction Farm in 2017.  I’ll use the Sergio Leone’s time tested rubric to review the plans for pigs this year.

The Good

There’s no doubt about it:  pigs are my favorite farm animal.  I like cattle as a group, but I like pigs individually and collectively.  I keep getting better at understanding both the animal management and the meat sales part of the business.  This isn’t a brag, just an acknowledgement that the years of hard knocks are starting to pay off with a much more practiced eye for pigs and pasture.

I’ve been able to keep the target price locked for five years running, so I’m glad to be able to maintain stability for our customers.  Pork sales have been improving.  I’ve been having some trouble marketing pork chops as premium products and customer demand seems to gravitate more toward traditionally low-end cuts (butt roasts and sausage) so our supply/demand ratio causes our “cheap cuts” to be overpriced and our “prime cuts” to be underpriced.

This year I plan on raising the average carcass weight.  The pigs have been averaging 175 lbs (skin off, head off, organs removed) hanging weight, but I’d like to push that into the 220s consistently.

The last “good” to mention has been the addition of salami.  We added Fuet last year and we have a batch of Soppressata in the works.  Coordinating with the salami shop has been challenging and meeting their new minimum batch size (1000 lbs) is a stretch, but the consistently positive customer feedback make this a great product category.  I’d like to work next on a formulation for a no-nitrate pepperoni, but that’s been a little more elusive compared to some of the other salami recipes they can produce.

The Bad

The glaring bad thing is that I’ve spread myself too thin (that will be a repeated theme in this series) and I don’t have time to do everything well.  Pig breeding and farrowing didn’t get the attention it deserved.  I was too slow to notice that my boar had become infertile and too distracted to switch gears once I discovered it.  Likewise I’ve been bringing along a few sows with poor maternal instincts and not making the right culling decisions, consequently I’ve accepted small litter sizes for too long.

My plan for 2017 is to stop breeding pigs.  I sent most of the older sows to the butcher in December (see previous reference to the big batch of soppressata) and the remaining two will go next week.  This has been a tough decision.  I really like sows and I like piglets.  I like the idea of the farm being self sufficient for its breeding stock.  I don’t like the idea of having to come up with big wads of cash every time I need to buy a batch of piglets, especially since I was able to maintain the sows quite economically with whey supplementing their pasture diets.

On the other hand, I must reset my focus on doing the things I know I can do well to put the farm on a more stable foundation.  I am hopeful that in the future I’ll be able to get back into the pig breeding work.  In the meantime, I am glad to have several family farmers I know I can work with confidently to buy their weaned piglets.  Although this is a loss of independence, it is a gain of interdependence.   It helps my outlook to realize that I can support other farmers to achieve their goals as I work to achieve mine.

piglets-drinking-cream

A group of young pigs that came to us from our friends at Cairncrest Farm.  A younger litter arrives this weekend from Stubborn Girl Farm.

The Ugly

This year I haven’t been happy with my bedding management for the winter hoophouses, so they were getting pretty mucky when we had our big January thaw.  Last weekend I loaded 20 cubic yards of wood chips into the hoophouse and that fixed the situation immediately.  I want to be more on punctual with this in the future.  One thing that makes it easy to procrastinate on adding wood chips has been the cost.  Each 20 yard load is $320, delivered.  I have not had much success getting landscapers to consistently dump wood chips, but another resolution for this year is to track down some more landscapers and get on their list.

nap-time

Pigs are high and dry again and they all seem pretty pleased with the situation.  This is the group 200+ pounders.

Changes 2017

This is the first in a series of posts on changes we are making to the farm this year.  Please stay tuned for more over the next two weeks.  We would love to hear from our customers as we describe our plans for 2017.  Please comment or email or call us.  Or stop by for a cup of coffee (or something stronger).

The good news is that Wrong Direction Farm earned 70% more in 2016 than 2015.  The bad news is that expenditures still outstrip earnings.  I work a second full time job to cover the farm’s losses.  Six years running, this takes a toll financially and also psychologically.  I’ve over-written about this in the past, but sustainable farming must include a sustainable living for farmers.  If Wrong Direction Farm is to persist, something’s gotta give.

I can’t see my way clear to projecting a profit in 2017, but I am hopeful that I can restructure things to a break even.  Although that’s still a long way from making even a minimum wage from the farm, it would be a tremendous boost for morale and outlook.  Over the years I’ve been working to refine my methods and to better understand what works and what doesn’t.  Trial and error are my two constant companions.  I am taking this opportunity to post updates on each of the farm’s enterprises and to describe how I plan to pursue them this year.  During the coming days I’ll cover the following:

  • Cattle
  • Pigs
  • Broiler Chickens
  • Laying Hens
  • Direct to Consumer Sales
  • Major Infrastructure Projects
  • New Endeavors

(Switching to first person plural since the changes are part of an ongoing discussion between Rachel and me.  Even the kids have been involved.)  In many respects, we’ve been forced to shed cherished idealistic aspirations for the farm.  Rachel refers to each of these losses as dying dreams.  And it is hard to watch a dream die.  But we’ve come to realize that not all of our dreams for the farm match the economic and social realities of our times.  So we need to adapt.  It is hard.  Stick around for more…